HERMON, Maine (NECN) - The utter devastation in Lac Megantic, Quebec sheds a stark light on so-called "Oil Trains"--giant caravans of 50 to 100 pressurized tanker cars, each carrying 30 thousand gallons of crude.
The one that derailed Saturday on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line was on its way to an Irving refinery in St. John, New Brunswick.
"Crude oil by rail has boomed. It's jumped from about 50 thousand barrels a year now to about a a million barrels a month, " says Chop Hardenbergh, who has covered the industry for two decades as Editor of Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports.
He says roughly 15 oil trains now roll through Maine each month, half via the MMA railway, the other half via Pan Am Railway's tracks.
"If we're going to continue to use oil and have a petroleum based economy, then we've got to move it and this is still the safest way," says Hardenbergh.
The reason for the boom in rail transport is cost. The crude coming from the oil fields in North Dakota is cheaper than oil from overseas. And there's no pipeline coming east from those fields, so even though rail transport is relatively expensive, it's still a better deal for the oil companies.
But environmental activists argue that the loss of life and community in Lac Megantic shows the down side of this deal.
"The insanity of this accident makes it a clarion call for us to find another path," said Read Brugger, an organizer with 350 Maine.
Standing outside the headquarters for Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways in Hermon, Maine, activists from Earth First and 350 Maine said the risks and costs associated with rail transport are just too high.
They also flagged concerns about the condition of New England's aging rail infrastructure.
"The rails were never meant to be used in this way for this long, without inspections," said activist Nancy Galland. "We have a gold rush mentality here, only its made of oil."
The activists are asking federal and state officials to put the brakes on oil tanker traffic until the entire rail system is inspected.
They say they also hope the explosion makes the public question its thirst for petroleum--and the cost of quenching it..